Dino, the charming and lecherous Las Vegas singer, stops for gas on his way to Hollywood in Climax, Nevada. The oily gas station attendant is Barney Millsap, a would-be lyricist who writes pop songs with Orville Spooner, the local piano teacher. By disabling Dino's car, Barney contrives a scheme to have Dino sing one of their songs on an upcoming TV special. To entertain Dino, Barney contacts the village tart, Polly, employing her to pretend to be Orville's wife, Zelda, for a night. She doesn't like Dino, but does love being Orville's surrogate wife. Dino goes to a bar, where he meets the real Zelda, and they spend the night together while Polly spends it with Orville. Written by
Billy Wilder's "Kiss Me,Stupid" was one of the few flops in the great writer/producer/director's canon. It was condemned by the Catholic League and was not well received by the critics or public. And it's a shame because this is one of Wilder's very best films; a cynical, often very funny comedy about a very touchy subject: fidelity (which probably accounts for its PG-13 rating; an oblique tribute to its' power)
Ray Walston stars as Orville Spooner, a third rate songwriter from a small town who has yet to chart a big hit. The role was originally cast with Peter Sellers, but after suffering seven heart attacks in a row, Wilder recast the part with Walston. I think it works out better this way. Sellers' greatest strength is improvisation, which Wilder is dead against. Walston has a dry, scorching delivery that works wonders with Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond's crisp dialogue. This is his best film work and he deserved an Oscar for this role.Dean Martin is cast as "Dino", a drunken, womanizing singer (how much of that was fiction?). Kim Novak is surprisingly good as the town hooker. Between "Vertigo", "Picnic" and this, who would have thought what a great actress Novak really is? She takes such great risks that a bigger actress wouldn't. And last, but not least, Wilder regular Cliff Osmond has the showiest of his Wilder roles as Walston's songwriting partners. (His lyrics for Walston's music are a riot)
I'm not going to give away the plot here because so much of the film's success is dependent on the element of surprise and there are many. But what amazes me is that you can take the riskiest of material and make it funny. Anything can be funny. It's all in how you do it. For example, Tom Green's "Freddy Got Fingered" wallows in just being disgusting and on that level, it is very wretched indeed. In fact, one could say that "Kiss Me, Stupid" was the "Freddy Got Fingered" of its' day. But Billy Wilder isn't just satisfied with presenting something. He has wit and he has ideas. He takes this material and presents it in such a way that it works as drama too.
It's also a great piece of filmmaking. Wilder's film is widescreen black and white, which emphasizes the characters and story. This is important because if it had been in color, we might have gotten caught up with atmosphere. While sometimes that's a good thing, this film has too many rich characters to care with the atmosphere.
Wilder is a master of the "serious comedy", movies in which we laugh so we may not cry. His titles include "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" ( a wonderful film which was never seen as fully intended) , "Ace In The Hole", "Stalag 13", "The Apartment", "Irma La Douce" and "The Fortune Cookie". "Kiss Me, Stupid" is very much in key with his body of work. It's a shame that this film still hasn't gotten the respect it deserves. It's a bigger shame that even fewer people understand it . That's a biting observation of our society.
**** out of 4 stars
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